A recently opened bistro in Beijing celebrates the best of the country’s favorite foods, Mike Peters reports.
The French celebrated their national day on the weekend, an occasion that inspires plenty of Champagne-swilling and fine dining. But since the spirit of Bastille Day suggests a movement away from the Versailles-ish lifestyle, it’s a good time of year to explore French food that’s a little less gilded.
Which is not to say less delicious. Beijing’s French restaurant scene has long favored the chandeliered style, but several excellent bistro-type eateries have opened in the capital lately. The latest is Bistro 108, tucked in a new dining street just opposite the US embassy and a stone’s throw from the French.
The joys of a recent visit began for us in a glass: The house rose, not too dry and not too sweet, made for a smooth aperitif that also paired nicely with the seafood and duck dishes that came later. It’s a mere bagatelle on the bill at 25 yuan ($3.70) a glass. The restaurant representstheJ.P.Chenetwineryin China, giving it an exclusive opportunity to offer that value.
Our recent visit began with a small plate of hot-from-theoven baguette, including some slices with a crispier crust. The restaurant orders the bread from outside halfbaked, our server tells us, and then pops it into the oven to be finished. There is, of course, real butter to go with it.
Our starter choice was the most popular one, judging from a quick look around the small eatery. The cast-iron skillet of fruits de mer (of the sea) included tender squid, scallops, shrimps and some delectable tiny clams, fried with white wine and whipping cream flavored with fine herbs. It’s 58 yuan and generous enough to share if you’re also trying to save room for dessert.
Mains were as sensational as local magazine reviews suggested they’d be.
The confit canard (88 yuan) is a French duck leg served with fried potatoes and a vegetable.
The duck is French for reasons beyond snobbish authenticity. Chinese ducks, obviously of renowned quality, are quite different birds, a species chosen to produce fat bodies and not so consequential limbs. The French, of course, are said to have an eye for a shapely leg, and for this traditional French classic, the leg is what it’s all about. So the restaurant sources big birds from the motherland raised to produce lean but substantial legs. The final quick-fry gives it a deliciously crunchy skin that can get a bit oily if you allow the dish to cool, so get those WeChat shots done quickly and enjoy the hot, savory goodness.
The vegetable on this day is a thick slice of tomato grilled with herbs, a side that is often watery and forgettable. Here it’s a flavor bomb, reflecting the careful sourcing that owner Clement Bacri and chef Nadia Meliani clearly take pride in. This tomato was a triumph of summer ripeness, exploding with the earthy goodness of the countryside.
We also tried the gambas flambes au pastis (158 yuan), a trio of king prawns flamed in a boozy sauce rich with herbs and aniseed. Beautifully presented with the shellfish sprouting from a mound of mashed potato, it’s served with a savory side of sauteed chopped tomatoes (again a star), yellow zucchini and tender asparagus.
Lyons native Meliani has also won local praise for her beef dishes, including a zesty boef Bourguignon (88 yuan) braised in red wine with garlic, onions and fine herbs that sells out early. Cote de boef is an Australian prime rib of beef served with three kinds of sauces, mashed potatoes, fries and salad. At 568 yuan per kg, it’s the big-ticket item on a menu that overall is nicely medium-priced.
Dessert is well-worth saving room for. It’s tempting to describe the fondant au chocolat, or chocolate lava cake, as Beijing’s best, but we tend to think that about every version of this sweet we’ve ever met. Suffice it to say this one is pure delight. The same can be said for the apple tart, a thin-crust apple pie that ripples across the plate to give a scoop of vanilla ice cream a warming embrace.
The restaurant’s name is a bit of a dodge on bad luck. The actual address is 104 — not a happy number in Chinese — so the name became Bistro 108.
“I’ve been a food lover since I was born, and it was my dream since I was a kid to open my own place one day,” says Bacri, whose professional background is in fashion and events. “I was waiting for the right place and the right moment.”
We’d say the moment has arrived.
a French duck leg served
Clockwise from top: Fish tartare with crunch vegetable and passion fruit; gambas flambes au pastis, a trio of king prawns flamed in a boozy sauce with herbs and aniseed; canard, with fried potatoes and a vegetable; au chocolat, or chocolate lava cake.